The War of Paraguay: Chapter XIX, The Question of Commander-in-Chief

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Bartolomé Mitre, as depicted on Argentina’s 2-peso note.

(1) As we have seen from Ferraz’s letter, on 5 September it was not yet thought that the emperor would take part in the siege of Uruguaiana. Tamandaré decided to go and kiss the hand of H.M. in the city of Alegrete (on 2 September), introducing him to General Flores and perhaps General Mitre. With the issue of commander-in-chief Mitre being in one of our provinces, the emperor of Brazil determined to take part in the military operations, especially since he found himself in that province, and not far off. Six days after Ferraz’s letter sent from Passo do Rosário, the emperor reached the encampment at Uruguaiana (11 September).

The question of the allied armies’ commander-in-chief was resolved by the 3rd article of the treaty of Alliance, through which, at the same time that it gave said command to General Mitre, the treaty established reciprocity in the event that military operations took place mainly in Brazilian or Uruguayan territory. However, Ferraz sent the following confidential notice to the governor of Rio Grande on 5 July: “General Osório will always act as chief commander of the army fighting the Paraguayans on the shores of the Plata and the Uruguay. The commander of arms, or anything else, of the forces of that province, in his rank as chief of reserve forces” (it’s best to repeat this to avoid confusion) “will lend to said chief general however much he can lend and however much the general can request, and if need be both forces will operate jointly within the province, or outside of it, if it is invaded; but in this case General Mitre, in accordance with the treaty of the Triple Alliance, will assume command of all the allied forces; and if as consequence of that province’s invasion the allied armies enter your jurisdiction, again General Mitre will exercise command of them.” This notice, taking into account the italicized words, should be interpreted in the following way, according to Ferraz: General Mitre could only exercise command by virtue of the aforementioned 3rd article, outside of our territory; but, the imperial government would waive its right to command in the event that Mitre was carrying out within our borders, having crossed them in pursuit of the enemy, the execution of a strategic plan. It’s clear that the government expected reciprocity in the event that this happened in Argentine territory, according to that article.

Brazil’s generous conduct is quite self-evident. Per the treaty of Alliance, the head of the Brazilian army, Osório, should have found himself under Mitre’s orders, except in the case of war in our territory or in Uruguay. If Mitre had a plan to beat the Paraguayan army, like, for example, the plan that brought to an end the fighting at Yatay, then passing the direction of operations from one general to another, as operations took place on this side and that of the Uruguay, would equate to sacrificing the principal interest of defeating the enemy to the secondary interest of satisfying a formality.

One understands Jequitinhonha’s (2) intransigence as he writes: “Who would’ve thought that the Triple Alliance would have to turn itself to defending our sovereignty and integrity! If there exists a person who thought so, before God I declare that it was not I, nor did I even suspect such. If I had thought so back then, then I would have raised my hand to protest in the name of our national sovereignty and dignity.” It was natural that Jequitinhonha’s brand of zealous patriotism would be resistant to the idea of owing such a great debt to Mitre or Flores, and that it would demand that only Brazilians defend Rio Grande and Mato Grosso, just as Argentinians had to defend the provinces of Corrientes, Entre Ríos, and Buenos Aires. That was not, however, how the Alliance proceeded.

Brazil’s army and fleet had to cooperate in expelling Paraguay’s army and fleet, and finding themselves in the middle of this business, they alone were not enough to defend the territory of Rio Grande from the tiny invading army. Given that Brazilian troops helped the Argentinian forces defend the Republic’s territory, the reciprocity at the foundation of international honor and dignity demanded that the Argentine troops help the Brazilians defend the Empire’s territory; this being so, the issues that could derive from the nationality of the territory had to come second to executing the strategic plan. If things did not go this way, there would have to be two commanders for the same army operating on both sides of the Uruguay, and as such two strategic plans. The main thing was the military objective. It’s probable that Ferraz thought to authorize Mitre’s command only as long as he was pursuing the enemy, and that Ferraz upheld this deference to Mitre’s status as head of state, which could not be subordinated to a position below the military governor (commander of arms) of Rio Grande. Really the command of Brazilian troops in Brazilian territory should have been Brazilian; but it also would have been better to not need foreign troops to expel the invaders from our territory, and because of that, our not having defended the Uruguay crossing is what’s really lamentable.

But to judge Ferraz’s actions it’s necessary to remember the time: Rio Grande still had not been invaded, and many did not believe an invasion possible. The aforementioned notice from Ferraz to the governor of Rio Grande has in its favor the extenuating circumstances of having been sent in view of a hypothetical held to be unlikely, and the fact that the part of our territory to which it referred was close to the very borderline crossed.

Ferraz did not think, upon sending the notice, that such an exemption from what was negotiated, made on a possibility so remote that it seemed absurd, would pose such difficulties for him in Uruguaiana. The fact is that Mitre arrived at this point, brought by Tamandaré, and desiring to hold a meeting with the emperor. Ferraz’s concession should have come to his attention before departing. Ferraz had not planned on a situation like what arose before him then, that is, the meeting, in Brazilian territory, of the heads of the three allied nations. Having just arrived, Mitre wants to assume the post of commander-in-chief in the meeting, claiming that he comes with the army from Yatay in pursuit of the enemy, executing the plan that has been agreed on with Osório since the beginning of the campaign, to whom he would leave the position in Concordia. Porto-Alegre is resistant to obey Mitre’s orders within Brazilian territory, invoking the clause of reciprocity in the May 1st treaty. With the tact and good sense inherent to him, Mitre does not insist on collecting on the concession made to him, taking into account as well the emperor’s imminent arrival in Uruguaiana.

Behold how the leadership of the allied forces was partitioned: Porto-Alegre exercises command of the Brazilian troops, and Mitre of the Argentine troops, the eastern troops, and the Brazilian Kelly brigade, except where it formed part of Flores’s division, who, upon reaching Uruguaiana, had spontaneously delivered to Porto-Alegre command of the other Brazilian forces of the allied army. In the attack and in the surrender, Mitre yields the highest position to Porto-Alegre and Ferraz. His loyalty is perfect, his etiquette consummate. He understands immediately that the treaty of May 1st has given him the primary role in the war against Paraguay, and that finding himself in the Brazilian empire and, above all, with the emperor present, yielding that role was on his part not only an act of courtesy, but also a gracious acknowledgement of the chivalry with which Brazil would proceed to sign that treaty. On the other hand, to not give Mitre the head position upon coming to Uruguaiana as a matter of courtesy, and the emperor not being present, was to weaken his prestige in the eyes of López. Perhaps the division of command had still not been thought of. After the concession made by Ferraz and Tamandaré’s insistence in bringing the Argentine general to Uruguaiana, only the presence of the emperor could prevent the resentment which Porto-Alegre’s behavior must’ve caused in Mitre, and only his presence could maintain and affirm the fraternity between the allied armies without hurting the legitimate concerns of Brazil. Under all the points of view, the emperor’s arrival to the camp in which Flores and Mitre found themselves was wise and well-timed. The spectacle struck the imagination, not only of the Río de la Plata, but also of Paraguay itself, and it was before South America and Europe the best demonstration—a necessary and timely demonstration—of the alliance’s solidity.

Translator’s Notes

1. The position of “commander-in-chief” was effectively that of field marshal. The commander-in-chief would oversee the maneuvering and operations of all the armies of the allied forces.
2. Francisco Jê Acaiaba de Montezuma, Viscount of Jequitinhonha, Brazilian senator, and president of the Banco do Brasil in 1866.

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